That’s a foundation this state should welcome.
The commission grew out of complaints that sentencing in Alabama courts varied widely from judge to judge, and that consistency — as well as close adherence to sentencing guidelines — would improve the criminal-justice system and make citizens safer. In 2006, Alabama followed by setting up sentencing guidelines to help judges in this quest for consistency, which is all well and good.
But a recent commission analysis shows that Alabama judges follow sentencing guidelines in about half of the criminal cases that come before them, according to the Mobile Press-Register.
Some of the convicted receive shorter sentences, some longer. In some cases, defendants convicted of property or drug crimes are released almost immediately. If it is a violent crime, the sentence is often harsher than the guidelines recommend.
It has been the goal of the commission that judges follow the guidelines around 75 percent of the time and use their sound judgment when the guidelines do not fit the crime. However, the study shows that judges follow the guidelines only about 50 percent of the time.
Aware that the problem still exists, the commission is working on a “Truth in Sentencing” plan that would standardize sentencing and likely eliminate early parole.
This page believes that fairness in the state’s judicial system demands consistency. Yet, the commission must take extreme care in creating a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing. Extenuating circumstances, when they exist, should be taken into consideration.
Also, the commission must keep in mind the simple reality of the situation. Today, the Alabama prison system holds nearly twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. Outgoing Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, have both warned that if the state’s prison system is not reformed and the inmate population reduced, the Alabama system is in danger of a federal takeover.
Perhaps along with the analysis of how often judges stray from the guidelines, researchers should have asked why the judges strayed. Was it because if sentenced to prison there would be no place to put them? Did other factors come into play? That would be important information to consider.
Guidelines are useful. There should be meaningful punishment. However, the guidelines and punishment should reflect the state’s willingness and ability to maintain a fair and consistent criminal-justice system.
Simply standardizing sentencing and making sure the criminal does time is not enough.